Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: It’s good to be honest: Barley wine can be a challenging beer style for those who are accustomed to less forceful varieties. Barley wine has power; it has oomph.
Barley wine isn’t the flowery stuff they served Bilbo at the House Of Elrond; it’s the beer the dwarves drank by candle and hearth light while deciding how to breach the Lonely Mountain. It’s a beer for quiet evenings and long stories, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Barley wine is an old style, and one that originated in Britain. According to The Oxford Companion To Beer, the style was born in the late 18th century within the private breweries of aristocratic British households. Wine wasn’t always easy to come by, and there was a demand for a beverage that could stand in its absence. Barley wine fit that need. It was full-bodied without being overly dark or thick like a porter, and sweet without being cloying. More importantly, it was high in alcohol content, meaning it was less prone to spoil and could be aged in wood barrels for later consumption (a process that is roaring back into popularity now).
Barley wine was also a byproduct of a now-outdated brewing method called parti-gyle, which involved making multiple batches of beer from a single batch of grain. It’s a method that noted beer writer Joshua Bernstein compares to a grandmother reusing a tea bag: The first cup has the strongest flavor, with each successive use becoming less and less potent. In terms of beer, barley wine was that first cup, the strongest and most desirable iteration.
The taste: While English-style barley wine still exists in the marketplace, these days it’s a style many American brewers have come to adopt, and perhaps improve. The presence of dark malt is still a reliable feature, which lends both a caramel sweetness and a color that trends toward brown with a tinge of ruby red, but American-style barley wine also tends to be far more aggressively hopped than its European counterpart.
Barley wines are also particularly well-suited for aging. As with wine, there’s nothing to stop you from immediately going home and cracking open the bottle you just purchased, but if you’re inclined to wait, you might find strong flavors mellow into something more interesting. Voluntary cellaring or not, you can expect to find flavors of dried fruit like raisins and dates, a current of caramel sweetness, and at times a small punch of brown sugar. Plus it’s boozy as hell, typically clocking in at around 10 to 11 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), so don’t be surprised if that first sip is a bit of a head shaker.
Possible gateway: It would be downright disrespectful not to mention the two beers that first brought the style of barley wine into the American craft beer zeitgeist: Anchor Brewing’s Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot. Old Foghorn, which was first introduced in 1975, takes the malty fruitiness of an English-style barley wine and Americanizes the hell out of it with cascade hops. The result is a beer with a serious commitment to West Coast-style hoppiness, but with the nuance and fortitude of an after-dinner sipper.
Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot doesn’t pull any punches either. The brewery claims it’s a “beast of a beer” (har har) and clocks in at an impressive 90 IBU (International Bittering Units), with 9.6 percent ABV. Combine that with the fact that it’s well-suited for cellaring, and you have a beer that is not only a historically appropriate introduction to the style, but also one you can store away for additional development and later enjoyment.
Next steps: Barley wine is a style that brewers are clearly having fun playing around with, and there are quite a few directions to go if you’re seeking something more experimental. The challenge: Not all fancy barley wines are produced on an annual basis. Firestone Walker’s Sucaba, for example, a highly rated English-style barley wine, is reportedly not being produced at all in 2017. There are still some great regularly produced options, though. Dogfish Head, that beloved creator of some of America’s most ubiquitous brews, produces its own version called Olde School. Made with pureed dates and figs, it’s a whopping 15 percent ABV with a pleasant bitter backbone to help round out the incredible booziness (and if you click on the link you can watch brewery founder/owner Sam Calagione act like someone’s enthusiastic, half-drunk dad in what looks like a Super 8 family vacation video).
Another great option is 21st Amendment’s Lower De Boom. At 11.5 percent ABV with 92 IBU, it’s another powerhouse, but it manages to combine sweet maltiness with serious hops and avoids the alcohol-forward “hot” flavor that many high-proof beers seem inflicted by. It’s an easy recommendation in a field filled with competitors, despite being served in an 8.4-ounce can, which they claim is a “traditional barleywine ‘nip’ size” and which I, who spent $10 on a tiny four-pack, claim is bullshit.
Talk like an expert: “Unlike many beers whose styles hail from Germany, barley wine is actually English in origin and was only first widely introduced to the United States in the mid-’70s.”